Measure seeks ombudsman for prisoners

CARSON CITY -- A state Senate committee heard testimony Tuesday favoring the appointment of an ombudsman to hear complaints from prison inmates, though some legislators questioned whether the idea is affordable given Nevada's budget crisis.

Citing class-action lawsuits and accounts of abuse within the state prison system, Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, and Rebecca Gasca from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada spoke in favor of Senate Bill 201 at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The proposal would empower an independent ombudsman within the Nevada attorney general's office to vet inmate complaints and determine whether they should be pursued or disregarded. The measure would protect prisoners from retaliation for filing complaints and require the ombudsmen to report regularly on the complaints received and reviewed.

Parks said such accountability would lift the cloud that seems to hang over the Department of Corrections concerning allegations of abusive treatments and other accusations. He noted costly lawsuits and settlements, such as a recent lawsuit over inadequate medical care at Ely State Prison that cost more than $800,000.

Gasca said the ACLU supports the measure because of a history of lawsuits and what she called an overwhelming number of requests from inmates for help. She said an ombudsman charged with ensuring proper medical and dental care could drive down medical costs by keeping inmates healthy.

Although the concept of an ombudsman received support from Sens. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, and Allison Copening, D-Las Vegas, questions about the budget dominated concerns from opponents.

Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, said that the state is broke and that every dollar spent on an ombudsman and staff is money that cannot be spent on education.